One Thanksgiving lesson most school kids probably don't receive has to do with the horn of plenty adorning festive paintings. For me it always seemed like a weird choice for carrying harvested food — what about a simple, flat-bottomed basket? But I didn't know that the horn was special. In classical myth, the horn is a symbol for several food- and wealth-related gods because, one story goes, Zeus played too roughly with a goat and broke its horn. To make amends, he promised to fill that broken horn with whatever food the animal desired.
Where reading is concerned this month, it's been devilishly hard to isolate one or two books for The Siren's Call. So in keeping with that idea of a brimming horn of plenty, this month's column offers a cornucopia of myth- and lore-related books.
Sherlock Holmes is certainly a mythic figure, isn't he? Arthur Conan Doyle gave us his version of the archetypal questing hero, clad in a frock coat and deerstalker cap. At the mention of the name "Arthur Conan Doyle," in fact, it's impossible not to think of Holmes.
For book critic Michael Dirda that's a real problem.
Such a powerful link, you see, has caused most of the great author's other works to be overlooked — and Dirda's brief, elegant reflection "On Conan Doyle: Or, The Whole Art of Storytelling" (Princeton University Press: 210 pp., $19.95) calls our attention to his large and notable output.
"Today much of Conan Doyle's substantial oeuvre — his bibliography runs to more than 700 pages — suffers readerly neglect because of the widespread misconception that he only rose above the conventions of his time when he wrote about the dynamic duo of Baker Street," laments Dirda, a longtime Washington Post book critic and author of several books.
With thoughtful care, Dirda explains how Conan Doyle "rose above the conventions of his time" in many of his writings. Dirda shines a helpful light on the adventurers Professor Challenger and Brigadier Gerard, while a selection of "weird" fiction causes him to declare that those stories "can stand up to the best work of such masters of the uncanny as Sheridan Le Fanu and M.R. James." (As a longtime admirer of James, I was thoroughly piqued by this — and promptly bought a collection of Conan Doyle's ghostly tales to read over the holidays.)
Dirda circles back to Holmes, directing our attention to overlooked aspects of the stories — the elusive presence of Professor Moriarty, for example, or Holmes' brother Mycroft. He also treats us to a delightful, intimate glimpse of the magical power of books in his own early life. What book lover hasn't had at least one cherished experience of reading? Dirda's own involves his loving preparations, as a youth, to read "The Hound of the Baskervilles" on an appropriately stormy day when the rest of his family was out of the house.
Why do so many people have such an undying fondness for the gaslit world of Holmes and Watson? Dirda offers many reasons: One is that Conan Doyle's writing possesses a quality he calls "compulsive readability." Conan Doyle was certainly artistic, but, as Dirda explains, he was less interested in aesthetic perfection than in reaching readers. That imperative guided his writing and is perhaps what resulted in a style that has withstood the passing of time. When you enter a Conan Doyle novel or story, as you would a house, there's a warm glow from a blazing hearth and a comfortable chair waiting for you. It's not a museum.
And there's much of that same feeling in Dirda's inviting book, which demonstrates why for so many years Dirda has been such an insightful guide to literatures past and present. (Note to director Guy Ritchie: If you're still looking for more Conan Doyle fare after "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows" opens next month, you might read Dirda's book for ideas.)
A.N. Wilson has a marvelous facility for bringing distant worlds up close. "The Victorians," for instance, his idiosyncratic portrait of the British Empire in the 19th century, is as engaging and as accessible as any novel on the subject by A.S. Byatt.
Wilson does much the same in "Dante in Love" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 386 pp., $35), surveying the life of a poet who continues to enchant readers and lure scholars even though, at a distance of 700 years (he died in 1321), there are probably more people who have tried to read Dante than have actually succeeded. That may be because the great Tuscan poet of "The Divine Comedy," Wilson explains, "expects you to share his knowledge of … contemporary Italian history and politics.... And on top of all that, there is the whole confusing business of medieval philosophy and theology…" It can be daunting.
Wilson, proudly, is not one of those failed readers, but he is sympathetic to struggling readers: In this book he provides a broad, accessible overview of the poet's life and work. It's the sort of book he wishes he'd had "as a young man when I first read the 'Comedy' … which did not take for granted any knowledge of Dante's background."
"Dante in Love" strikes a good balance between what it offers to new and informed readers. Wilson blends the basics, such as Dante's upbringing and Florentine politics — dominated by the Guelfs, the party supporting the Papacy (which broke into a white and black faction), and the Ghibellines, aligned with the Holy Roman Emperor — with more specialized details about the poetry.
One of these specialized bits, for instance, has to do with the "Lady of the Window" celebrated in the poem "Il Convivio." She isn't some airy, idealized figure, some critics have argued, but is in fact Dante's flesh-and-blood wife. This, Wilson notes, is an effort made by some scholars to find a place in the poetry for Dante's spouse, who otherwise never appears. Dante's married life, however, "will always remain unimaginable," Wilson insists, because his age wasn't a confessional one like ours today. Even when Dante refers to himself in his poetry, Wilson says, it is a highly stylized matter.
Still, Wilson does engage in speculative biography, reading between the lines of the "Commedia," the "La Vita Nuova" and the other works, striving to give us a portrait of a man who, long before he was a literary immortal, was like the rest of us: beleaguered by his job, by the turmoil of his times, struggling with debts, critics, jealousy.
"Dante in Love" certainly shouldn't replace another volume in your personal library of Dante-related books, but it does make a fine contribution to our appreciation of a poet who, as 19th century historian Jacob Burckhardt wrote, "absorbed the whole world into his own soul." So read Wilson's book, pick up that copy of the "Commedia" and try again.
The Siren's Call: A horn of plenty's worth of holiday reading
Michael Dirda's 'On Conan Doyle,' A.N. Wilson's 'Dante in Love' and much more.
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